“Let’s go dancing in the minefields, and sailing in the storms. “
This past weekend, my wife and I celebrated the start of our twelfth year of marriage – our eleventh wedding anniversary. As we looked back, the biggest realization we had was that eleven years is a long time. A lot of things have happened in those eleven years. Many moves. Buying a home. Bouts of anxiety and depression. Talks about having kids. Multiple degrees. New careers. Feelings of regret. Two furry animals (one of which is laying on my lap now. The purring is soothing but the contorting around her body to get my hands in position on the keyboard is not).We have often wondered how we have stayed married. We’re not so dramatic as to say we’ve had it particularly difficult – we have never been without the necessities and we tend to be respectful of each other, even in conflict. Still, there have been no shortage of challenges and, in looking at the statistics around divorce, how is it that have we not just become another tally under the divorce column? How is it that some marriages end in divorce and some continue?
It’s a tough question. Every person — every couple — has a unique story and assimilating them into some simplified answer about how to stay married is definitely not my goal here. With all of those unique stories come unique thoughts about the meaning of marriage. I won’t assume that we’re all approaching our marriages with the same idea of what it is meant to be. Each of our views are constantly being revised as we live life and have experiences. The way that my wife and I think about marriage today after being married, studying relationships, and simply living is vastly different than when I started out eleven years ago.
Marriages are complex relationships that must be approached with humility and understanding. Despite how difficult they can sometimes be to understand, our thoughts around marriage — and divorce — are at least worth reflecting on. What we learn may be valuable for all of our relationships.
We cannot start talking about marriage without first talking about life. Life is constantly changing. It moves and churns, constantly in flux. It marches relentlessly into the future. We enter into it, born of a woman who had some relationship with a human man whether that be a marriage of their own, a tryst, a romp, a transaction, or something far more traumatic. We do not choose our parents, our location, our socioeconomic status. We don’t choose our earliest most fundamental relationships. We do not choose where or when or why we are born. Whether we call it fate or chance or divine appointment, where we begin is not ours to affect. We do not choose the point from which we start.
The nature of our relationship with our mother and father, their families and friends, and others we come into contact with are incredibly important, especially in those formative years. As children, when we feel we have reliable and effective home bases in the people that care for us, we more willingly explore the world, forming friendships, and handling the changes that life throws our way. Not all children have this level of security and, so, we each have unique ways of moving throughout our environment. Though they can, these experiences with our parents don’t often make or break us as humans. They do lay down a baseline for how we approach relationships and handle change, how we process emotions and regulate the emotions that well up inside of ourselves. These interactions, quite literally, affect the way that our brains form and grow. They affect who we become.
By the time we get to the point in our lives where we begin to have conversations about falling in love or getting married, we’ve established many patterns of interaction, and complex ideas about what the world is, who can be trusted, and what it all means. On top of the foundation that we received from our interactions with those that cared for us when we were children, we have added an incredible amount of our own experience, several learned behaviors, tons of new interpretations of meaning, and a collection of new needs, wants, and desires. All of this, we bring all of this forward with us into the relationships that we form.
Every experience that we have — every moment of every day — contributes to the people that we are becoming. They change us from who we were before. It has for all of our lives and it will continue as long as we continue to have experiences. Just as life is constantly changing, we as individuals are constantly changing, experiencing the world through our completely unique lenses. I am not the person that you knew yesterday. I am slightly — or, perhaps, significantly — different than who I was. This is not just true from some philosophical perspective. Experiences literally affect our brain, each one strengthening or changing neural connections. We know that over time, we can make choices for behaviors that can literally change our minds.
Experiences, choices and behavior are powerful factors in who we are becoming.
Then there are relationships. When two people come together, bringing with them all of those things that formed who they are, they begin to have new types of experiences. As always, events are interpreted through one’s own individual lens, but now there’s a second, relational lens — and these perspectives interact in interesting ways. What does an experience mean for our relationship? How do we react as a couple? What happens when the way that we react as a couple is not how I would react as in individual?
The relationship can begin to be thought of as a new being that has experiences of it’s own. In fact, when couples choose to pursue relationship counseling, trained relational therapists consider the relationship — and not either individual — their primary client. This relationship grows and changes, morphing every day just like we as individuals do. It is always in flux and is in need of attention. Every choice we make has an effect, moving us closer together or further apart, strengthening or weakening our bonds. It’s important to note here that this is true of all relationships, not just romantic ones. Our friends, too, are in relationship with us and are constantly changing which affects their interaction with our relationship and with us.
Relationships are obviously different than marriage. Marriage as a concept is a moving target. Our culture, age, experience, religion, politics, and friends all have their own contributions to what we believe marriage is and should be in our lives. No one can truly define what it is to be married. Groups try to define it from their own perspectives, but no one can fully describe marriage in a way that applies to everyone’s experience. At a basic level, perhaps marriage is little more than a label and a legal arrangement. No one would stop there, however. Marriage can be about much more than this. What other commitments go with the idea of marriage? By choosing marriage, what are we wanting to say to the world about ourselves and our spouse? By not choosing marriage, from what are we wanting to dissociate? Why would anyone want to spend thousands of dollars to bring two families that see the world very differently together for a day filled with stress and embarrassing stories if it wasn’t meant to be the start of something beautiful?
There is a lot that we have to sort through. One of the most powerful influences on the way that we think is our culture. Think about all of the concepts that we hear about marriage for a minute — things that we believe to be true that we may not actually have any evidence to back up. Weddings are expensive (they don’t have to be) and are meant to be one of the most important days of our lives (not necessarily — having been married for eleven years, I can think of many days that have proven to be far more important). Many marriages end in divorce (Yes, this is true) so why should I bother to get married (because statistics have no real bearing on how you choose to live your your and pursue your spouse). We need to find a partner (It can be really nice to find a partner, but it’s not a need) because getting married solves a whole bunch of problems (WOAH…. no, but it introduces a lot more complexities to work through).
We’ve been told a lot of things about marriage.
Sometimes we think a marriage will complete us — it’s the Jerry McGuire syndrome. Our culture propagates the fairy tale that when we find that special someone they will be everything that we are not. The weaknesses we’ve struggled with for our entire lives will be shored up. Together, there is nothing we can’t accomplish. We become a perfect union, an amalgam of yin and yang. Our spouses, to be fair, never had the audacity to make this promise, but when it’s broken we take it out on them. We blame them for not being the impossibly perfect complement for us.
We are told that marriage mystically fuses the two into a single flesh. For many people this is a spiritual metaphor that helps them more fully understand the solemn nature of their vows. Still, it can be literally damaging should the metaphor extend too far. When the two become one, the one runs the risk of losing their individuality; everything that the universe, our creator, has crafted us to be may be jeopardized for the sake of conglomeration. This cannot be the intention. It is important to make a distinction here since clinging too closely to our own individuality is not ideal either. Marriage is a commitment to work towards finding the balance between expressing our own needs and emotions and being readily available to hear and respond to the same from our partner.
Instead, it might be helpful to think about how partners form a single system – separate components that are tightly integrated into each others existence. The components are completely interrelated and affect the other. Changes in interactions can have complex and unpredictable consequences. When mornings that usually start with smiles and jokes instead begin with frustration and bickering, there are ripple effects that infiltrate every moment of our day. We are free to respond to each other however we might choose, quickly realizing that each action results in different inputs, different results. A does not always equal B. Were there to be an equation to describe relationships, it would be of the calculus variety and not simple arithmetic.
The world pitches marriage to us as a lifetime commitment – our vows emphatically end with a “’til death do us part.” Conceptually, though, we humans don’t do well with these long-term agreements. We can’t wrap our heads around what it might mean to be with a person for forty or fifty years – especially for those of us who choose to marry in our twenties or thirties. Most of us have not had to grapple with being with another person through sickness or worse. It is such an unfathomable commitment that that it seems miraculous so many couples do, in fact, stay together.
Conflict will show up in marriages — in all relationships — and try to invade them. Conflict wants a seat at your dinner table and a voice in your conversations. When it gains some leverage, it can wedge itself into rather tight spaces and make itself difficult to excise. For some, when conflict becomes a permanent fixture, the easiest thing to do is to dismantle everything. We divorce. We take the whole thing apart because it is one of the viable ways to get rid of the conflict. If the fairy tale was a lie, what else isn’t true? If the fairy tale isn’t true, perhaps we found the character to play the role of our charming partner. Conflict, especially when it escalates, betrays the fact that the fairly tale isn’t true and has never been true.
For some in this scenario, the choice is made that divorce is not an alternative that they will allow to be on the table. The commitment here, though, is often to a third party, often a spiritual force or a social expectation, or anxiety around what ending a relationship might actually mean. My family would not want me to end my marriage. It isn’t in God’s will that we would get divorced. My experience has been that this approach can work — I’ve seen it work — however the couple must be aware that it may also put additional stresses on an already stressed relationship. There are suddenly more expectations and less freedom. When there is less chance of getting it wrong, it seems more likely that people will not give their best effort. It’s like bowling with the gutter guards up. Your game might look great on a scorecard, but how underwhelming is it to know there was no chance of losing or no motivation to try harder? Risk can be motivating. A false sense of security can be blinding.
The marriages I have encountered in which the individuals seem happiest to be married to each other are not those that are overly concerned about the commitment they have made. They are not the ones that assume behaviors that hurt their feelings are masked personal attacks. They are forgiving and assume a position of gratitude and giving the benefit of the doubt. They are present moment focused. There is a genuine curiosity the pervades their interactions with their partner. These relationships are filled with grace, with compassion, and with a sense of mutual respect.
A million different people will have a million different definitions of what marriage is or ought to be. Yet, at its core, there is something fundamental that unites all of these different views. Marriage is about commitment. It may not necessarily be long term commitments for every couple, but rather a commitment to every day; a commitment to the present moment. There is a realization that when we come home from work, what we have experienced while we are apart has changed us so that there is always something new for us to learn. Our relationships with friends, with the world around us, with the sources from which we draw our greatest meaning relentlessly sculpt us. We are in a constant state of becoming. Relationships are about providing the nurturing environment for us to continue to grow and to be unapologetically us.
Neurologically, our brains are healthiest when we are processing the present moment; when we are in the here and now. Thinking about the future is difficult and intangible and our anxiety circuitry might easily be triggered in the process as we consider all of the possible ways that things might play out down the road. But, it can handle today. When the brain is aware of the present moment and what’s happening here and now, when it’s attuned to the relationships and experience of those we love the most, our brain is electric. Research has shown that this type of present moment awareness actually strengthens the relational parts of our brain. We we carry through on our commitments to be today focused on our marriages, when we take time to fully be with our spouse, we are changing our brains to be better about keeping the doubt and anxiety at bey, and strengthening the parts that keep us committed to the people that we love.
Relationships emerge from who we are as people. If we practice those things that keep us healthiest as individuals, then it stands to reason that our relationships will be healthier as well. When we are gracious towards ourselves, we will be gracious towards others. When we practice self-compassion, we will be more compassionate in our relationships. If we have an understanding that the world is not out to get us, we won’t feel like our spouse is a secret agent, looking to take us out. Relational health emerges from the work towards our individual health.
From this day forward, maybe it makes sense to be less concerned about making it to death do you part. Death is such a morbid marker with which to end a relationship. Maybe, the greatest, most honest gift that you can give your partner is today. It is, in fact, all that we have. It is impossible for us to guarantee what will happen in the future. But, we can be there for each other, loving, sharing, communicating, hurting, laughing together — fully being together — for today. When the end of every day parts us, we don’t focus on the inevitable end, but the thousand new beginnings that insulate us from taking each other for granted.